Understandably, a number of viewers have published their criticisms in the week since “13 Reasons Why” premiered. In this piece from The Mighty, a website dedicated to publishing stories from people with serious health conditions, Alyse Ruriani explains her issues with the show, and with “Thirteen Reasons Why,” the novel on which it’s based.
I agree with some of Ruriani’s points; she mentions that the series doesn’t address mental illness’s role in suicide, which is a pretty glaring oversight considering “a mental disorder and/or substance abuse is found in 90% of suicide deaths.” At a time when so many people still don’t understand the nature of mental illness — that you don’t have to have quantifiable reasons why you’re suicidal, that you can be suicidal because mental illness attacks your mind just as clinically as physical illness attacks your body — it’s true that greater exposure to stories explicitly about mental illness are necessary.
Maybe it’s better to think of “13 Reasons Why” not as a story about suicide, but a story about bullying. It’s not an entirely accurate portrayal of depression, with its cause-and-effect storytelling, but it does paint a devastating picture of how acts of bullying can pile up and build off each other, how relentless bullying can make a person believe they’re worthless. Organizations like The Trevor Project and It Gets Better exist for a reason.
But I also think that even if “13 Reasons Why” was meant to be an accurate depiction of suicide, not every story about suicide needs to fit into that majority statistic, and I don’t think “13 Reasons Why” is trying to pass itself off as the definitive portrait of depression and suicide. Can’t this just be a story about one girl and what drove her to suicide? Do we have to expect it to fit into all of our preconceived notions about why things like this traditionally happen?
Besides, though “13 Reasons Why” rarely explicitly acknowledges mental illness (it’s mentioned that Clay used to take pills and see a therapist, but that’s mostly just hinted at), it never outright dismisses the possibility of Hannah having clinical depression. Perhaps this is simply a story with uninformed characters, a story full of people determined to scapegoat, to find someone to blame instead of accepting that not everything is easily explainable.
That might seem like a cop-out, to suggest that it’s not the show that’s ignorant but the characters, but there’s evidence for it. “13 Reasons Why” is frequently self-aware in ways that people overlook.
There’s one scene in particular, in the final episode of the series, that illustrates this beautifully. The two main characters, Hannah and Clay, each sit down with their guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, at different times. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“The Stanford Prison Experiment”) toggles back and forth between these two conversations, showing us Hannah’s final attempt to seek help at the same time that he shows us Clay confronting Mr. Porter with his failure to save her.
“13 Reasons Why” — which, it must be said, isn’t a great show, though it’s often quite a good one — paints Clay a little too frequently as the hero. That continues in the final episode, as he walks Mr. Porter through the final day of Hannah’s life, showing him that it was his negligence that led to Hannah’s final decision to kill herself.
And it’s true: We watch Mr. Porter’s session with Hannah, and we see him repeatedly stumble. When Hannah admits she was raped, he reveals his simplistic view of sexual assault, subtly victim-blaming by suggesting that if Hannah didn’t explicitly tell her rapist to stop, she must’ve initially consented then changed her mind. He repeatedly tries to rush her into an explanation for her feelings, then rushes her into revealing the identity of her rapist. Finally, he sets up a false dichotomy: Hannah must either press charges and directly confront Bryce, or “move on.”
What makes the sequence a great one, though, is that Mr. Porter isn’t a bad person. He’s probably a poorly trained counselor, but he recognizes his mistakes, and he sometimes says the right things. When Hannah asks him if he can promise Bryce will go to jail, he says, “I can’t promise you that, Hannah. But I will promise you this: I will do everything in my power to keep you safe and protect you in this process.”
While the series generally positions Clay as the hero of the narrative, the righteous avenger seeking justice for Hannah by confronting her bullies, Mr. Porter makes some good points in this scene. “Whatever happened to Hannah, between you and her, with other kids, she made that choice to take her own life,” he says. Later, when Clay suggests people should try to do better, Mr. Porter says, “We can try to love each other better, but we’re imperfect people. We love imperfectly, we don’t always get it right … you can know all the signs and understand the issues and still come out missing something.”
In that moment, the show’s true philosophy comes out. “13 Reasons Why” isn’t suggesting that there were 13 individual reasons Hannah killed herself, even if Hannah suggests that. In the wake of loss, everyone searches for closure, for some reason to explain how something so tragic could happen. Just because the characters of “13 Reasons Why” never seriously consider mental illness as the sole cause for Hannah’s hopelessness doesn’t mean the show itself endorses that point of view.
In the end, “13 Reasons Why” subverts its own title, acknowledging that people are essentially unknowable. Maybe Clay, or Mr. Porter, or anyone could’ve prevented Hannah from resorting to suicide. What’s even more terrifying, what few of the characters consider, is that maybe there was nothing they could’ve done.